Hashima Island, commonly called Gunkanjima (meaning Battleship Island), is one among 505 uninhabited islands in Nagasaki Prefecture about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Nagasaki itself.
The island was populated from 1887 to 1974 as a coal mining facility. The island’s most notable features are the abandoned and undisturbed concrete apartment buildings and the surrounding sea wall. The island has been administered as part of Nagasaki city since the merger of the former town of Takashima in 2005.
It is known for its coal mines and their operation during the industrialization of Japan. Mitsubishi bought the island in 1890 and began the project, the aim of which was extracting coal from undersea mines. They built Japan’s first large concrete building (9 stories high), a block of apartments in 1916 to accommodate their burgeoning ranks of workers. Concrete was specifically used to protect against typhoon destruction. In 1959, the 6.3-hectare (16-acre) island’s population reached its peak of 5,259, with a population density of 835 people per hectare (83,500 people/km2, 216,264 people per square mile) for the whole island, or 1,391 per hectare (139,100 people/km2) for the residential district.
As petroleum replaced coal in Japan in the 1960s, coal mines began shutting down all over the country, and Hashima’s mines were no exception. Mitsubishi officially announced the closing of the mine in 1974, and today it is empty and bare, which is why it is called Ghost Island. Travel to Hashima was re-opened on April 22, 2009 after 35 years of closure.
Battleship Island is an English translation of the Japanese nickname for Hashima Island, Gunkanjima (gunkan meaning battleship, jima being the rendaku form of shima, meaning island). The island’s nickname came from its apparent resemblance to the Japanese battleship Tosa. It also is known as the Ghost Island.
The island is increasingly gaining international attention not only generally for its modern regional heritage, but also for the undisturbed housing complex remnants representative of the period from the Taishō period to the Shōwa period. It has become the frequent subject of discussion among enthusiasts for ruins.
Since the abandoned island has not been maintained, several buildings have already collapsed. Other existing buildings are subject to breakage. However, certain collapsed exterior walls have been restored with concrete.
While the island was owned by Mitsubishi Material up until 2002, it was voluntarily transferred to Takashima town. Currently, Nagasaki city, which absorbed Takashima town in 2005, exercises jurisdiction over the island. A small portion of the island was re-opened for tourism on April 22, 2009. A full re-opening of the island would require an enormous amount of money to make the premises safe, due to the aging of the buildings.
On August 23, 2005, landing was permitted to journalists only. The scene of the ruined locations on the island was broadcast in the media. Originally, Nagasaki City planned restoration of a pier for the prospective tourist landing in April 2008. In addition, a 220-metre (722 foot) long visitor walkway was planned (entrance to unsafe building areas was to be prohibited).
Due to the delay in development construction, however, in the end of 2007, the city announced that public access was delayed for approximately one year up until spring 2009. However, the city faced safety concerns, regarding the risk of collapse of the buildings on the island due to significant aging.
Because of the harsh weather, it was estimated that landing would only be feasible for fewer than 160 days per year. From a cost-effectiveness point of view, the city considered relinquishment of plans to extend the visitor walkway further for an approximate 300 metres (984 feet) toward the eastern part of the island and approximately 190 meters (623 feet) toward the western part of the island after 2009.
In 2009, the island was featured in History Channel’s Life After People, first season episode “The Bodies Left Behind” as an example of the decay of concrete buildings after only 35 years of abandonment. The island was again featured in 2011 in episode six of a 3D production for 3net, Forgotten Planet discussing the island’s current state, history and unauthorized photo shoots by urban explorers. During the 2009 Mexican photography festival FotoSeptiembre, Mexican photographers Guillaume Corpart Muller and Jan Smith, along with Venezuelan photographer Ragnar Chacin showcased images from the island in the exhibition “Pop. Density 5,000/km2”. The exhibit traced urban density and the rise and fall of cities around the world.
The Japanese Cultural Institute in Mexico used the images of Corpart Muller and Smith in the photography exhibit, “Fantasmas de Gunkanjima”, organized by Daniela Rubio, as part of the celebrations surrounding 200 Years of Diplomacy Mexico–Japan.
Sony featured the island in a video promoting one of their video cameras. The camera was mounted onto a mini, multi-rotor, RC helicopter and flown around the island as well as throughout many buildings. The video was posted on YouTube in April 2013.
In 2013, Google sent an employee to the island with a Street View backpack to capture its condition in panoramic 360-degree views and allow users to take a virtual walk across the island. Google also used its Business Photos technology to let users look inside the abandoned buildings, complete with old black-and-white TVs and discarded soda bottles.
World Heritage Registration
A non-profit organization, “The Way to World Heritage Gunkanjima” (represented by Doutoku Sakamoto), has proposed that Gunkanjima island be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site as one of The Modern Industrial Heritage Sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi. The process leading to designating the property as a World Heritage Site includes: preparation of the nomination letter attesting the value of the property; a field investigation, after the property nomination, by the Japanese government, which is submitted to UNESCO; discussion of the proposal by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The representatives of six prefectures and 11 cities, including Yuichiro Ito, Governor of Kagoshima Prefecture, and Genjiro Kaneko, Governor of Nagasaki Prefecture, jointly submitted to the Agency for Cultural Affairs a proposal for addition of the “Modern Industrial Heritage Sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi” to the Japan’s tentative candidate list for World Heritage nomination. In August 2006, the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry decided to support the World Heritage designation proposal in an attempt to promote the utilization of the Meiji-Era industrial heritage, including Hashima, as tourism resources in the Kyushu and Yamaguchi region.
On September 26, 2008, the Agency for Cultural Affairs added the “Modern Industrial Heritage Sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi” to the tentative lists. It was concluded that the property possesses outstanding universal value; the property clearly attests the intensive introduction of Western technology, which served as the driving force for Japan’s rapid industrialization in a dramatically brief period and its own industrial modernisation processes.
This submission is contested by South Korean authorities, who object on the grounds that the coal mining facilities on the island employed forced Korean and Chinese labourers during World War II.
When people resided on the island, the Nomo Shosen line serviced the island from Nagasaki Port via Ioujima Island and Takashima Island. In 1970, 12 round trip services were available per day. It took 50 minutes to travel from the island to Nagasaki. After all residents left the island, the direct route was discontinued.
Currently, sightseeing boat trips around the island are provided by two operators; Yamasa-Kaiun from Nagasaki Port, Kyodo Co. from Nomo Island. As of April 22, 2009, the island is open once again for public visits, with Yamasa Kaiun providing transportation to the island from Nagasaki.